Going ape

Norman, 1973. A mother chimpanzee named Carolyn held her infant to her chest as two strangers, a man and a woman, approached her cage.

The man pulled out a dart gun, turned to Carolyn and shot the mother chimp with a tranquilizer. Carolyn slumped to the floor of the cage, her hands still clutching the baby. The humans moved into the cage and pried the newborn free of Carolyn’s grip.

Three days later, that baby chimp was on an airplane heading for New York City, swaddled in a blanket and in the arms of the woman. Nim Chimpsky was off to a strange life that would bring creature comforts, worldwide celebrity and, eventually, abandonment.

Born in November 1973 at the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Primate Studies, the chimp was the subject of Project Nim, a high-profile study that sought to prove an ape could learn American Sign Language, or ASL. Researchers at Columbia University raised Nim as a human, first with an affluent family in a Manhattan brownstone and, later, with college students in a sprawling mansion.

Times were heady for a while. Nim was profiled in newspapers and magazines. He appeared on “Sesame Street” and TV talk shows. Once the study began to wobble, however — when it became clear that perhaps chimps aren’t really suited for life as a human — Nim was cast aside with a casual cruelty that makes one question just how much humans have evolved over the ages.

For Bob Ingersoll (pictured, above), who befriended Nim at the now-defunct IPS, the story bears recounting.

“I really just want people to know about Nim and what happened to him,” he said. “I want Nim and all those other chimps (at IPS) to be remembered, instead of pretending this didn’t happen.”

He need not worry, thanks in large part to a poignant and riveting new documentary, “Project Nim,” which screens Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Ingersoll will be at each showing for a Q-and-A afterward.

The movie has earned nearly universal critical acclaim since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, not surprising given its pedigree. Director James Marsh and producer Simon Chinn made 2008’s Oscar-winning “Man on Wire,” a documentary that detailed a French high-wire artist’s crossing of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 1974.

After that movie’s success, Marsh and Chinn had difficulty finding a documentary subject that would pack the same visceral and emotional punch.

Then Chinn’s wife, who was several months pregnant, read a newspaper account that reduced her to tears. It was about Nim Chimpsky.

“I duly read it and understood why it upset her so much,” Chinn recalled. “It tapped into something maternal in her state. It’s a story about many things — nature versus nurture, identity, how we discharge our responsibilities to those who are more vulnerable than us — but initially, it felt to me like a story about parenting.”

Project Nim was devised by Herb Terrace, a Columbia University psychology professor who wanted to test whether a chimp could learn language. Other researchers had seen positive results teaching sign language to chimpanzees — simian mouths are unable to vocalize human language — but his quest was more ambitious. 

right Nim with Laura-Ann Pettito (photo by Susan Kuklin)

He envisioned a primate raised in a completely human environment and encouraged to think of himself as a person. The chimp would be taught to dress himself, brush his teeth, use a bathroom. By immersing the animal in the prosaic functions of the human world, Terrace reasoned, the subject would be properly motivated to communicate like, and with, humans.

Terrace knew where to get his ape.

By the late 1960s, OU’s Institute for Primate Studies had become the go-to chimpanzee resource for researchers and even everyday folks eager for a novelty pet. Founded and operated by William Lemmon, a charismatic OU psychology professor who lorded over his caged inhabitants with an electric cattle prod, IPS was widely regarded for its success breeding and raising chimps in captivity.

Terrace arranged with Lemmon to get a 2-week-old male chimp. Terrace named the animal Nim Chimpsky, a pun on renowned linguist Noam Chomsky.

For Nim’s surrogate parents, Terrace selected a well-to-do couple, Stephanie and W.E.R. LaFarge, who lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The LaFarges knew very little sign language and even less about wildlife. “I knew nothing about chimpanzees,” Stephanie LaFarge, a serious-minded psych graduate student at the time, admits in “Project Nim.” Indeed, the documentary suggests she was selected chiefly for her enthusiasm and because she and Terrace once had been romantically involved.

She relished her role as Nim’s surrogate mother. She breast-fed the baby primate for several months. As Nim grew, so did his interests. Stephanie LaFarge occasionally shared a joint with him and indulged the chimp’s budding sexual curiosity.

The LaFarges’ seven children loved their playful and ultra-hairy sibling, but that affection was not shared by W.E.R. The patriarch found himself constantly tested by Nim over who would be the dominant male. There were other problems, too. Although Nim was learning to sign, the family’s recording of data was shoddy at best, and usually nonexistent. Frustrated, Terrace eventually removed Nim from the household and moved him into Delafield, a rambling estate owned by Columbia.

The new digs just north of Manhattan provided Nim more space to roam, while giving Terrace greater control over his study. Delafield’s elegance — its 20-plus rooms were perfect for students wanting to party and pair up — also helped attract more handlers to the program.

Among them was Laura-Ann Petitto, an undergrad who became the chimp’s primary teacher. Under her instruction, Nim’s ASL vocabulary increased to some 150 words.

In poring over archival footage from that period, “Project Nim” producer Chinn said he was surprised by the degree of Nim’s intelligence and emotional complexity. The ape loved pranks, but was compassionate and comforting, and he had an uncanny ability to read people.

“That’s something I hadn’t quite caught from reading about chimpanzees,” Chinn said. “They get depressed. They laugh. They cry. They have unique personalities. They are individuals.”

But chimps will be chimps.

the niceties of Nim’s setup — stuffed animals, bedtime stories, a
favorite blanket — he became increasingly aggressive. Troubles escalated
until the summer of 1977, when Nim sank his teeth into the face of a
female student, requiring her hospitalization.

right Nim rides in a car with Herb Terrace (photo by Susan Kuklin)

Ingersoll blames Project Nim organizers for having little understanding of primate behavior.

to make a chimpanzee into a Little Lord Fauntleroy was about the
stupidest thing you could think of,” he said. “Nim was difficult for —
excuse my language — dumbasses that didn’t know how to hang out with
chimps. Unfortunately, those guys got bit up bad. Chimps can be very
difficult to be around. You have to be able to read them very well
because they’re damn dangerous.”

assault spelled the end of Project Nim; Terrace sent the chimp back to
IPS. After having been raised with no exposure to others of his species,
Nim entered a strange new environment, housed with caged, shrieking

He gradually adjusted. Nim’s
chief help was Ingersoll, an OU undergrad who worked at IPS. Ingersoll
had once harbored ambitions of playing pro baseball, but that
possibility vanished after being hit by a drunk driver. He drifted to
OU, searching for a new calling in life.

Ingersoll, a self-professed hippie and Deadhead, found it at IPS.

didn’t exactly share the same curiosities as Lemmon and his acolytes,
who famously studied whether female chimpanzees had autonomous clitoral
orgasms. Ingersoll simply wanted to hang with chimps, especially Nim.

didn’t take me long to realize I wanted to steer far away from all the
kinds of things they were interested in,” he said. “Whether chimps had
orgasms or not — who cares? I don’t care, but that’s interesting to some
of those science dudes.”

and Nim took walks, and explored the woods. They communicated easily,
often through sign language, but also by way of gestures and grunts.

was really smart in terms of language use and the way he was able to
read humans,” recalled Ingersoll. “I have seen smarter chimps, but not

OU slashed IPS funding in 1982. Lemmon, desperate to keep
the institute afloat, resorted to selling Nim and a number of other
chimps to a New York University medical research facility testing
hepatitis vaccines. The Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery
in Primates (LEMSIP) in upstate New York was a far cry from IPS and
worlds apart from what Nim had known at the LaFarges’ home and in
Delafield. He signed furiously for help, but his new caretakers did not
know ASL.

made saving the IPS chimps a personal crusade. Setting up base in
Jungle Jim’s, a counterculture shop he owned on Norman’s Campus Corner,
he worked to orchestrate pressure on LEMSIP from animal-rights activists
and news media.

administrators relented and released Nim to the care of an animal
sanctuary in Texas. Ingersoll maneuvered to get Nim housed with other
chimps: two females and a male. Nim finally had his family. In 2000, he
died of a heart attack at the age of 26.

Marsh, “Project Nim” was an irresistible artistic challenge, a chance
to make a biography of an animal’s life. The story’s resonance, however,
went much deeper. He read Elizabeth Hess’ nonfiction book, “Nim
Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human,” and recognized in it a tale
wrought with unexpected turns and raw emotions.

Marsh didn’t realize just how emotional the documentary would be until
he began filming interviews with principals such as LaFarge and Pettito.

wanted people to relive what happened in the present tense, and so the
interviews were often quite emotional for that reason,” Marsh  said. “It
was a surprise and a revelation that people felt so strongly. … It was
enormously beneficial to the impact of our story to have such unguarded
and unfiltered testimony from people who were very open and honest, and
often very hard on themselves on camera.”

of that self-flagellation is arguably warranted. As much as Project Nim
ostensibly examined a chimp, the study was revelatory about the people
who conducted it. The movie boasts the spectacle of humans behaving like
animals and an animal who occasionally seemed almost human.

A notable exception is Ingersoll.

His efforts to rescue Nim and other IPS chimps make him one of the film’s few heroes. It’s a label he rejects.

just a guy who got lucky as hell and got to be Nim’s friend,” said
Ingersoll, who splits time living in San Francisco and Oklahoma. “I’m no
hero. I’m just speaking up for my buddy, and he would’ve done the same
thing for me.”

Phil Bacharach

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